By Raisa Cuevas
I was 11 years old when my uncle asked me to accompany him to Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind. I would be one of few sighted individuals at this gathering, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I grew up assisting Uncle B while walking around the city or doing small tasks around the house, but this was the first time I would be the minority amongst dozens of visually impaired attendees. I was a bit nervous, but I knew that my companionship would mean a lot to Uncle B.
At the camp, I spent much of my time joining my uncle in outdoor activities. One of the first things I remember is him suggesting we go pedal-boating in the lake. “But Uncle B, I can’t swim,” I anxiously warned. The thought of getting on the water terrified me. What if my uncle steers us into a rock and the boat tips over? How will I save him, much less save myself? “We’ll be fine,” he reassured us. I had no idea where he got this confidence, but I trusted him and helped us put on our life jackets.
We pedaled away for a good hour or so in the warm California sun. The water was so calm that I realized how irrational my fears were. Just as were my initial fears of attending the camp in the first place.
Throughout the day, I was challenged with interacting with the other attendees. I was already a shy kid to begin with, so it wasn’t easy reaching out for a chat with people who I wasn’t sure I completely understood. Most of the time I spent silently observing the laughter and happy conversations going on around me. People were making jokes, singing campfire songs, and living completely in the moment. I envied their ability to be fully present and uninhibited while my own mind was busy trying to take everything in.
I looked into the eyes of kids my age and wondered what different challenges they faced in their everyday lives. I looked at the older men and women, noticing their wandering eyes and bright smiles that carried a confidence and wisdom which truly fascinated me. This camp created a beautiful sense of community between people of all ages and abilities.
I didn’t think of it this deeply as the naive preteen at the time, but looking back, I’m so grateful to have experienced this at such a young age. Through this and other life lessons from my Uncle B, I’ve developed a stronger empathy for others and appreciation for my own abilities. I’ve opened up my mind to new experiences, trying my best to immerse myself in them completely.
Building websites for accessibility
More recently, I’ve realized how strongly my firsthand experience with the blind has helped me advocate for accessibility in my everyday work. As a web developer at Google, I carry a massive responsibility to build websites that are accessible to people of all abilities, languages, and network conditions. It’s not easy to address all these needs at once, but it’s important not to leave out any set of users when your audience is in the billions. Thankfully, my close relationship with Uncle B has helped me understand the needs of visually impaired individuals and to think critically about the experiences of other marginalized groups, as well.
For many years, Uncle B has been an active member of LightHouse for the Blind, the nonprofit organization that runs Enchanted Hills Camp. Since 1902, they have provided education, training, advocacy, and community for blind individuals like him. Through LightHouse, Uncle B learned much of his professional skills that allowed him to start his own business. This was five years after our experience at Enchanted Hills Camp. And when Uncle B asked his favorite niece to come work for him, of course I said yes.
I was employed as the bookkeeper, and I assumed this meant being his personal assistant as well. Although I didn’t mind bringing him tea and coffee, ordering books on Amazon, paying his bills on the phone, or whatever random task he’d ask of me, I continually found myself fascinated by how much he was able to do on his own. I often watched in amazement as he navigated the computer with special techniques like zoom software, a screen reader, inverted high contrast, and handy keyboard shortcuts. For quick personal notes that he didn’t want to keep in a Microsoft Word document, he typed them speedily on his old-school braille typewriter. He labelled buttons on his telephone, keyboard, and other electronic devices with textured stickers to help identify the keys. He read books at his desktop magnifier, which zoomed very closely and presented the inverted image on a high-contrast screen. His level of vision was very low, but fortunately he learned to be effective in an office environment through the help of LightHouse.
Through most of my bookkeeping responsibilities, I spent a lot of time at the computer with Uncle B at my side, and he instructed me to write Excel formulas for his monthly operating reports and inventory records. He would walk me through the steps as if he was looking at the screen with me. On breaks, we discussed our love for technology, his admiration for Warren Buffett, and other topics that enlightened and inspired me.
The lessons I learned from Uncle B have truly influenced the way I approach accessibility in my work. By observing the unique ways that he interacts with technology, it’s now second nature for me to think of the needs of different audiences when it comes to building a website or other digital experience. I proudly speak up for these users when stakeholders or team members overlook accessibility requirements for a project. It’s rewarding to share this knowledge with my colleagues and see them start to understand the importance of accessibility, thinking about it at earlier stages of projects.
It’s easy to overlook the needs of visually impaired users if you don’t have firsthand experience, but it’s not hard to learn ways to be more inclusive of everyone. There are millions of technology users across the world with various disabilities, including visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive. These people are using your products, and many are intelligent, committed business owners like my uncle.
Rebuilding Enchantment Hills
I feel passionately for the services that LightHouse for the Blind provides, and how they helped my uncle succeed. I admire their commitment to providing valuable resources to the blind community in California and around the world. When I found that Enchanted Hills had been burnt down in the Napa fires, I was devastated. That’s why I donated to #RebuildEHC, in hopes of restoring this unique and empowering place of retreat. And in my daily work, I continue to advocate for an inclusive and accessible web.